Friday, January 20, 2006

India: the EU of Asia

Back from three weeks in India and a few travel reports I decided to collect my thoughts on the trip. You can also read the items I posted along the way.

People Everywhere

Lourdes Convent School

The first thing that struck me were the number of people everywhere. Looking out of an aircraft window at Australia's busiest airport you might see no one, or perhaps one or two people. In India there are dozens of people around each aircraft. At first they just seem to be just standing there, but they are all doing something (or waiting to do something). In Canberra if working from my inner city home office, I might see a dozen people in a day. In India, in a rural village, I might see that many people go past the window in a few minutes. This takes some getting used to and the crowds in the markets can be overwhelming, until you get used to the fact that these people are just going about their normal business and you have less personal space than other places.

India: the EU of Asia

bus with Hindu shrine and driver was wearing a santa hat

Rather than a country, think of India as the European Union in Asia, with Indian states the size of European countries. People from across India share a common currency, heritage and legal system. But they look different, have different religions, speak different languages and each think their own state is the best place. At the Kala Academy I attended a performance of traditional dance and singing from the Nagaland, in the extreme north east of India. To me they didn't look or sound like "Indians" but like Native North Americans ("Red Indians").

Like Europe, the borders of India are in flux. There are disputed territories with traditional home lands crossing the recognized borders. During my visit Goa celebrated "Liberation Day", when on 19 December 1961, the Indian military occupied what was a Portuguese territory. The day after the Nagaland performance, the newspaper reported clashes between Nagaland separatists and the Myanmarese army, with several people killed.

Exactly who is an Indian is also flexible. Indian newspapers and billboards have prominent advertisements for bank accounts for NRIs: non-resident Indians. These are Indian citizens living and working abroad. Along with those of Indian descent who are not citizens, these people are a valuable source of income and business contacts for the country. In a narrow Indian village lane you can run into people visiting their relatives from around the world.

Indian citizens move around India with the freedom European citizens move between countries of Europe. They take with them their own tastes and are catered to by the locals for food and entertainment (the two main categories of catering are "Veg" and "Non Veg"). The result of all this is that an Indian is a global citizen without having to leave home. Someone from the USA, and to a lesser extent Australia, could spend their whole life in the one culture in their own country. An Indian will be exposed to multiple cultures, languages and countries on their doorstep.

They are poor but not stupid

The average income in India is very low. But there is a general thrust for knowledge and desperate scramble for educational qualifications as a way to higher income. Like China, engineers and teachers are held in very high regard. If I tell someone in Australia I am a Director of the Australian Computer Society and Visiting Fellow in the College of Engineering and Computer Science at the The Australian National University I get looks of bewilderment and some grudging respect from my IT industry colleagues. In China and India it earns the sort of veneration reserved for saints and pop stars.

Franciscan Hospitaller Sisters email to Portugal

India is a case study in the application of appropriate technology. Watching a house or a road being built with hundreds of laborers it is tempting to say "why don't they just get a bulldozer and a cement truck?". But ask the people organizing the work and they will explain the relative costs of labor and machinery and how in many cases large machines will not fit down narrow Indian streets.

insignia of the Indian Navy Information Warfare Squadron

Outside a traditional performance by an Indian Navy Band I saw military guards with primitive batons and well used submachine guns. It would be easy to dismiss this as a third world country with a rag tag third world military. But also on display was the shield of the Indian Navy Information Warfare squadron. They fly locally made aircraft of German design, fitted with advanced electronics to monitor signals from India's enemies (and friends). These aircraft have the same Israeli radar as Australia's most advanced Maritime Patrol Aircraft.

India is full of IT and engineering entrepreneurs. I saw a two door battery electric car made in Bangalore. But not all Indian engineer enterprises are a success. The story of the "Konkan Railway Skybus", vaulting high over a regional city is almost straight out of an episode of the Simpsons. After considerable expense the monorail seems to have been abandoned due to an accident on a test run.

Goa: India Lite

My trip was confined to one state of India: Goa and to a village there. This provided a relatively gentle introduction to the country (as does Bangalore). Goa's main airport is in open countryside, so you are not immediately confronted by city and crowds. This contrasts with Mumbai, were slums crowd up against the airport boundary, and as soon as you leave the terminal you are confronted by a wall of people and the smell of rotting material.

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